I often wonder what we could have been had we existed in the space we needed - a space made for us. We would have been something extraordinary. Instead, we are an ephemeral plot of a would-be love story in a book that was never written. Except that we’re dead. Ours is a story of a brutally-ordinary annihilation.
The house was beautiful, on the surfaces. Mahogany, cherry, porcelain, marble - it was 120 years of heritage and history. The house was seething, underneath the surfaces. Suicides, murders, disappearances - it was 120 years of death and derangement. When I found it, I only saw all the surfaces, and I thought I understood what the neighbors meant when they said something felt wrong inside.
Too many people had come and gone from its doors. Too many people had gone in and never left. And as the house aged, it became hungrier, but it digested things much more slowly. Living inside, you almost didn’t notice it happening, like carbon monoxide poisoning.
We lived in the house, together, but not on the same side. He was already here when I moved in. When I bought it, I knew it would be a project, and I knew other people - other things - already lived here; the neighbors had said as much. People said it being haunted was why it had changed hands so much, and for so little. But nobody could say what the hauntings were, besides a deep and abiding foreboding.
He was something like a feeling at first. That feeling you’re not alone in a room, those auditory glitches that feel like far away conversation. Sometimes it is. Sometimes you’re really not alone in a room. Where did he live? Was he dead? Parallel? Past?
When I tore the first of the many layers of wallpaper from the parlor, he became something more. And once, I heard him ask my name, though at the time I wondered to myself if I was manic, and then I popped a klonopin.
It took three days to remove 6 layers of wallpaper. And when the original plaster was finally reintroduced to the light and the air, I felt the house shed its skin. After that, things came alive, as if off-gassed from the tear-down.
At first, it was him, standing in a doorway dressed in slim slacks and a partially-untucked white button down with the sleeves rolled up. Bare feet, dark auburn hair and blue eyes. And he smiled before he vanished. At first, it was a beautiful blonde teenage girl in a silk slip dress sitting at the piano, even though it was covered in drop cloth to protect it while I renovated the front room. At first, it was a small boy playing at the top of the staircase each afternoon, laughing and stumbling along.
In a week, in the kitchen - in just a week it became something normal that I would feel him before I saw him. Sometimes as if he’d just walked in from outside. Other times as if he had just come down the stairs. Once, in the morning, he was already sat in the breakfast nook when I came down. I felt like he was always being careful with me. I assumed it was because he knew I’d be afraid. But now I wonder if he was afraid, too.
The day I pulled down the 50’s plastic backsplash from the kitchen wall, something happened. A piece of plaster came away with the backing glue and immediately bones spilled out of the wall, as if a dam had broken. I dropped the piece of backsplash and looked down at my empty hands as bone and ash and loose teeth ran through them like sand. And I didn’t move. And then, behind me -
What the fuck?
I didn’t even startle; I knew it was him, just as I’d know a roommate or a partner. Through all these weeks of waking up the house, we had become something that didn’t make sense. I looked back at him and asked what this was. The way he looked at me, I knew he didn’t know either. And then, just as quickly as the desiccation had gathered like an hourglass on the floor, it was gone, all at once. I turned, and we stood there, just staring at each other. Until I cried.
I backed up to the wall in the spot that had just paradoxed me into a panic attack and slid down until I could set my head between my knees. I was manic; I had to be. I was living with a man who didn’t exist in a house full of people and something else. I wasn’t going outside anymore, except to get supplies for working on the house, and now I was having full-on hallucinations while working with power tools. I was disintegrating.
And then he touched me.
I felt him crouch in front of me and rest his hands on my shoulders.
Look at me.
But I couldn’t. It was too much; everything was more than I could.
And then I felt him hook a finger under my chin and gently pull my face away from my knees and towards his.
I need you to come back. We need to talk.
Sitting in the breakfast nook, I made tea for a fucking ghost. And then I sat down across from him as he hooked his foot around mine under the table and smiled at me. And then all of a sudden, he wasn’t smiling. And what I remember he said is when I began to understand he was not a ghost. Or if he was, I was just as much of one, too.
Something happened. This morning, the girl at the piano had her eyes dug out. There was a spoon set on the top of the piano, as if from a tea cup. She turned to look at me, blood dripping from the cavities like tears. And then she was gone. She never looks like that.
And last night I woke up to sheets soaked in sweat and blood, wondering if I had died. But once I looked away and back again, there was no blood. You’re not crazy, and you’re not manic. Something is happening to me, too. Something is happening to us.
And I asked him why our life was like a cliche-ish movie about hauntings in a hungry house. It was a joke. Kind of. But he just cocked his head to one side a bit, as if confused. Then there was a knock at the front door.
I have to go.
He got up from the table, touched the side of my face for just a moment, turned, and disappeared as he walked past the stairs on his way to the front door. I followed him just a few seconds after, and there was nothing there. I looked to my right, into the front room.
There was a spoon on the piano, a small puddle of dark liquid gathered in the bottom and on the piano around it. I swallowed myself and went to the kitchen, wet a washcloth, and walked back to the front room to clean it up. There was now nothing on the piano. And the room was cold.
That night it stayed cold. That night it was too dark. That night, I felt him crawl into bed with me. And he didn’t just feel like a presence anymore; he pressed his body against me, surrounding me, and I could feel his warmth. I could smell him. I could feel his heartbeat. Or at least that’s how I remember it. I remember him feeling alive. I remember wondering if I was the one who didn’t exist this entire time. I remember him moving one shoulder of my sweater and kissing me on the back of the neck. And he whispered -
Go to sleep.
And in the morning, he was gone, but the sheets were left as if someone had stepped out the other side of the bed. He had been here. And in the morning, walking down the main staircase, I saw the little boy who usually played on the mezzanine crumpled at the foot of the stairs, his neck and one leg angled impossibly. I screamed, and when I blinked, he was gone.
As we became something more than two people but somehow less than one, my friends came for me. Asking where I’ve been, telling me to get out more - why am I so pale? They thought I was in a depressive episode. I couldn’t very well tell them I had fallen in love with a man who doesn’t exist. So they came to the house. We drywalled, we painted, we tiled. We stayed up too late drinking wine, and I started to feel less heavy. And then I’d see him leaned against the doorway or sat on the stair landing, smiling at me, dressed in one of the same 3 shirts he always was. He always looked as if he had just come home from work. And maybe that’s part of why it had become so easy to play house. And maybe that’s why it started becoming so hard.
The house was quiet when strangers visited. It hid its teeth; sometimes it even faked warmth and welcome. But sometimes it leaked out - it couldn’t stop itself. Once, sat on the couch drinking and talking, all the smoke alarms in the house went off at once. But by the time I’d dragged a stool under the one in the kitchen to begin the quest of turning them off one-by-one, just as they had all started at the same time, they all stopped. I looked down at my absolutely bewildered, startled friend. That was the last time she stayed past sunset.
We took cues from each other - used each other for courage, and a few times, I saw he’d have house guests as well. I’d come down in the morning to find him having coffee with someone. Or I’d walk into the den in the evenings to smell a roaring fireplace and find him and two friends sat around the coffee table, drinking scotch and laughing. He would see me see him and he would smile in my direction, which only ever confused his guests.
And as we tried to open up the house, each on our own side, it fought. Once, his brother looked down at his coffee mug to find dozens of dead flies where the coffee had been. And then they weren’t dead. And so he never came back after that.
Once, an electrician I hired was down in the cellar when the door slammed shut and something heavy ran down the stairs. The man screamed and ran out of the basement and out of the house. He didn’t look back once, and he never billed me.
The house was making its territory clear, and we were the livestock inside its fences.
A certain night, I was in the kitchen washing dishes and talking to him while he was sat at the table. I turned to look at him, and his throat was slit from ear to ear, blood pouring down, almost as if like a curtain, soaking his shirt, running down his legs and feet to the floor, where it pooled so quickly I wondered if the house would drown us in our own blood. I closed my eyes and turned back towards the sink. Took a deep breath. Because it wasn’t real. And when I opened my eyes, the sink was filled with blood and my arms were covered in blood and I felt something on the back of my neck push my face down towards the sink before I started screaming.
The neighbors came over that night to check on me. He was with me when I opened the front door. And he walked right out, where I thought I saw police lights for just a moment. No one else saw him. The neighbors were sweet; they made sure I was okay and the house was safe. And in those moments, the house was safe. The kitchen was spotless, the anger well-leashed. But they’d lived next door for more than 30 years. They gave me a knowing look and said if I ever needed to stay at their house, I was welcome. Then the wife looked up the stairs at the mezzanine, eyes wide. And then they had to go.
The next morning, he was sat at the breakfast table perusing a newspaper I could almost read. When I stepped into the kitchen he set it down, got up, walked over to me and hugged me, surrounding me with a feeling that seemed at once like comfort and commiseration. Stepping back to look at me, he kept his hands on my shoulders.
We have to go. It tried to kill me last night - we have to go.
And there was just a little bit of blood in the corner of his mouth.
That was the first day where neither of us disappeared on the other. We sat together in the den and watched too many hours of true crime documentaries. He asked me why everything on my side looked so weird and metallic. I asked him why, when I could see his side, there was barely any furniture in the house, save the piano. Eventually, I laid down with my head in his lap and fell asleep to the sounds of death and the feeling of him stroking my hair.
When I woke up on the couch, it was still the middle of the night, and he was gone. He’d left a note; he’d started to do that to remind me we existed. Set on the coffee table right next to the notebook it was torn from, the loose piece of paper for some reason looked, burnt?
When I woke up, it was the middle of the night, and there was a noise in the cellar. At first, it sounded like dragging. And then tools started to fall off the shelves, clanging against the rough cement floor. And then it was on the stairs, still dragging. Something with heavy feet, dragging something that slid and thudded up each step. Slowly, silently, I turned over and lifted my head just enough to see over the back of the couch, looking out the den and through to the kitchen, where something edgeless and so black it obscured everything around it entered from the foyer.
As it backed into the kitchen, it became the vague shape of a man, dragging a much-less-vague, very real human body. Which looked like me. Without a face, it turned towards me as it let the body’s arms drop and stood. Without a face, it smiled a crooked, dripping smile of sharp teeth stained with blood, viscera stuck between them. I felt too warm, and when I looked down at myself, there was a curtain of blood, and when I grabbed my neck, there was an open gape. I heard it laugh. And then, in less than an instant, everything was gone and every light in the house was on.
And there he appeared, running from the foyer and through the kitchen to get to me, where he scooped me up and over the couch and squeezed me as if I was something cherished; irreplaceable. He kissed me - hard. And for just a moment, it tasted like iron.
Things became different after that.